In what thankfully turned out to be nothing more than “a nice safety drill,” as Superintendent Scott Siegel put it, students were evacuated from a Ceres school after a bomb threat Tuesday morning.
The threat to Sinclear Elementary on Morgan Road was made in the 11 a.m. hour. The call was to 911 and was received by California Highway Patrol dispatch, indicating it was made from a cell phone, said Ceres police Sgt. Greg Yotsuya.
“In today’s climate, with the Parkland shooting and with the issues that we’ve had going on in America, we take these threats very seriously,” Yotsuya said regarding why the school was evacuated. “It’s a threat to kids … we’re going to react in what we feel is an appropriate manner to make sure the kids are safe.”
Ceres Unified School District officials made the decision to take students and staff to Central Valley High School, about 3.5 miles away. A robocall was sent out to families informing them of the threat and evacuation.
“We have in our safety plans — and it’s sad that we have to think of this — we have thought of where in this kind of situation would we evacuate to,” said Siegel, who was overseeing the evacuation center at the high school. Central Valley is the designated spot for schools in that part of the district, he said.
Well over 600 students are enrolled at Sinclear, Siegel said. Teachers had their morning attendance rosters with them to ensure all students were accounted for.
By and large, the Sinclear students were handling their situation well, the superintendent said. Counselors, nurses and psychologists were with them, but “it’s a big adventure for them and we reassure them police are doing this out of an abundance of caution to keep them safe,” he said.
A number of students had not yet been served lunch when the threat came in, so the district’s nutrition program provided meals as the kids waited in the Central Valley gym. Parents or designated family members or friends were allowed to pick up the children by grade level.
The district briefly considered keeping the Sinclear students at Central Valley only until law enforcement swept the campus and declared it safe to return, Siegel said. But it became clear that wouldn’t work because of timing and because while the district didn’t at first tell parents to pick up the children at Central Valley, “the power of social media did that.”
Once a few parents decided to pick up at the high school, word quickly spread, and returning the children to Sinclear could have complicated matters. “We’re finding out some things about how these situations unravel,” the superintendent said.
One mom, on the way out with her kindergartner, said she panicked a little when she heard about the bomb threat, then felt relief when she learned her son was safely off the Sinclear campus. She left work in Turlock and drove to pick him up at Central Valley.
As for the little boy, he was fine. "He just thinks he went on a field trip," his mom said.
Zulema Ruvalcaba picked up her own daughter and the children of a friend. When she arrived at Central Valley, only about half the Sinclear students had arrived by bus, she said. “You didn’t expect this whatsoever,” she said of hearing about the threat. “It was just shocking and you just hope it’s a hoax and everybody is safe.
“The Ceres district and the superintendents and the staff are doing an awesome job,” she continued as she left campus with the four children. “I’m familiar with a lot of them and they’re all parents as well, and they were shocked as well, but they stepped up to make sure everybody was safe.”
One of the kids with her was second-grader Fatima Lara, who seemed to take the evacuation in stride. “We’re safe, we were locked into the classrooms” until leaving for Central Valley, she said.
Alex Casas was picking up his sister’s son and commended the district and police for making the evacuation so smooth. “It went great, and pretty quickly.”
His nephew, 8-year-old second-grader Ezekiel Tubera, agreed, but his comments reflected a reality children shouldn’t even have to think about. “I was really scared about my friends, because I don’t want any of my friends to get hurt or anything,” he said.
Apparently not exactly clear on why he and his classmates were evacuated, he added, “Most importantly, I didn’t want my family members to get hurt. I thought people were shooting at a different school … and my parents might live close to that school.”
Back at Sinclear, after a thorough search, “the only suspicious item located was an unattended musical instrument, in its case,” Yotsuya said. The Sheriff’s Department bomb squad checked it and found it benign.
Shortly before 2 p.m., streets in the area of the school were reopened after being closed because of the threat.